Two Great Writers Meet: Chekhov and Tolstoy

They belonged to two different social classes and two different generations. However, there was great mutual respect and admiration between Russian writers: Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) and Anton Chekhov (1860-1904). According to Maxim Gorky, another notable Russian writer, Tolstoy had an almost fatherly affection for Chekhov.

Despite being a doctor, Chekhov refused to accept the tuberculosis from which he died six years before Tolstoy. In 1901, when Tolstoy was seriously ill, Chekhov wrote that if Tolstoy died, it would “leave a big hole in my life.” In turn, Tolstoy also had great admiration for Chekhov, particularly for the humor with which he spiced up his stories, a characteristic that Tolstoy thought was one of the great attributes that a writer could have.

However, they only met personally when Chekhov was 35 and Tolstoy 67. Tolstoy was living in his huge country house called Yasnaya Polyana, the same one where he was born. Chekhov was then living in Melikhovo, a place 40 miles south of Moscow. On August 8, 1895, encouraged to make the journey by Ivan Gorbunov-Posadov, a mutual friend, Chekhov took a train to visit Tolstoy.

Although there is no photograph left of that encounter there remains a small story narrated by the Russian writer Ivan Bunin in his book Memories and Portraits. Bunin, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1933, was a great admirer of Chekhov. In it he says that once Chekhov told him that it was very difficult to describe the sea and he proceeded to tell him: “Do you know what description I read the other days in a child’s notebook? ‘The sea is great.’ That’s all he wrote. And I thought it was wonderful,” concluded Chekhov.

When Chekhov arrived after the short train ride, Tolstoy asked V.A. Maklavov, who was also visiting Tolstoy, to take Chekhov to visit Yasnaya Polyana while he waited for them in his studio. Over breakfast they discussed Sakhalin, a prison island Chekhov had visited to investigate the living conditions of its inhabitants.

Later, after lunch, while Tolstoy rested, Chekhov and two other guests read Resurrection, the novel Tolstoy was writing at the time. When Tolstoy returned from resting, he asked their opinion of the novel and Chekhov gave him the only kind of criticism that Tolstoy appreciated, the correction of a certain fact. The heroine of the novel is sentenced to prison. As Chekhov had some experience of the probable length of sentences after his visit to Sakhalin, he suggested to Tolstoy a change in the length of the sentence, a comment for Tolstoy thanked his young colleague.

During the visit, Tolstoy asked Chekhov if he could find some kind of accommodation for an old soldier who had gone blind. Chekhov agreed to help him and, on returning home to Melikhovo, wrote to his brother Alexander, who knew the director of an institute for the blind and who was able to help the soldier.

According to Ivan Bunin, Chekhov told him about the last minutes of his visit, “You know, I’ve just been to Gaspra to see Tolstoy. He is still in bed, but he spoke about all sort of things, including me. When at last I got up to say good-by, he kept my hand in his and said: ‘Kiss me.’ I bent down to kiss him and he suddenly leaned close to my ear and said in his brisk, old-man’s voice: ‘I still can’t abide your plays, you know. Shakespeare wrote badly, but you’re even worse.’”

We can imagine Chekhov riding towards the train station, prodding his horse so as not to miss the train back home and shouting exultantly from the rooftops: “I am a worse writer than Shakespeare! I am a worse writer than Shakespeare!” as his jubilant cries were lost in the immensity of the Russian night.

Dr. Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of the 1979 Overseas Press Club of America award for the article “Missing or Disappeared in Argentina: The Desperate Search for Thousands of Abducted Victims.”